In 1994, AT&T spent $30,000 on a banner in the header of Wired, thus kicking off the internet’s most ubiquitous monetization engine: advertising. The first online ads followed what had been done for decades in print newspapers – clearly-marked banner ads next to content.
Since then, online ads have evolved on two main fronts: targeting, and format. Targeting innovations are the ones that are most talked about, from Google’s ability to target search terms, to Facebook giving advertisers the ability to target precise demographics and interest groups.
The advances in format have been towards native advertising: advertising that matches the form and function of the platform upon which it appears. While early web companies monetized through banners,
• Google monetizes through ads made to blend into results
• Facebook/Instagram monetize through ads that are formatted like posts by users
• Amazon’s ads blend into their product search results
• Snapchat, Tiktok, Pinterest, Taboola and others are also built on the same principle.
The convergence of the largest ad networks in the world to native advertising speaks to its effectiveness: for companies who monetize by serving ads, increasing CTR is an important lever for maximizing revenue.
It may seem counterintuitive that ads that blend-in attract more clicks, when ads are generally known for trying to grab your attention. It makes sense when considering that most internet users have learned to ignore ads outright, so content that doesn’t look like an ad bypasses that reflex.
From native ads to native creative
While ad formats have evolved towards native advertising, the look of an ad is ultimately determined by the creatives that the advertiser uploads. The natural extension of native ad formats is native creative: ad creatives that match the organic content on the platform on which they appear.
The concept isn’t necessarily new, it’s one that David Ogilvy embraced in some of his magazine ads by making them look like editorial articles:
As he says in Ogilvy on Advertising, “there is no law which says that advertisements have to look like advertisements. If you make them look like editorial pages, you will attract more readers.”
The key in that quote is the first sentence: ads don’t need to look like ads.
It’s a concept that’s often overlooked, I believe for two reasons:
• Advertisers tend to set out to make “nice ads”, which comes with all the biases of what ads are supposed to look like.
• When advertisers are presented with a new channel, the first instinct is to start with creatives that have performed well in the past. Yet the context in which the ad is delivered can be different from your current channels, making what is native creative on one channel an obtrusive ad on another. For example, many CPG companies port their TV ads over to Facebook, despite the two contexts being totally different:
To fully leverage native ad formats, the creative needs to match the platform too. Start then by asking the question: how do we make ad creatives that match the organic content on the platform on which they appear?
For example, what would native creative look like on social channels like Facebook? Scrolling down your Facebook/Instagram feeds, there’s likely a distribution of the following:
• User-generated content, i.e. what friends and family are posting
• Memes, funny videos, etc.
• News and articles
1. User-generated content
I.e. ads that look like (or actually were) made by users.
There are many ways to leverage this format: copy written from the user perspective, unedited videos of products, captions with the same design as organic content, etc. Ads like the above that I’ve run performed almost twice as well as more traditional, brand-heavy ads, especially on younger platforms like Snapchat and Tiktok.
At its core, influencer marketing is very similar to this – ads that look like they’re organic posts by users you follow. The challenge with influencer though was the difficulty to drive ROI, because tracking can be difficult, costs are quite high and organic posts are more ephemeral than ads. An approach I’ve increasingly seen is to use influencer marketing both as its own channel and as a way to make new creative. By negotiating the right to use the influencer’s post in ads, the decrease in CPI from running it as an ad often made the initial cost of the post well worth it.
2. Memes as ads
The massive organic reach of meme pages is a testament to how effective of a format they are on social channels. While memes might not fit the brand guidelines of every advertiser, I’ve seen it perform well for brands that embrace it.
There are a few models for memes as ads – running them from your own page is the easiest for measuring performance and getting ROI, but brands like Hinge also use popular meme pages as the platform for their meme ads.
3. Articles and news
These types of ads are most commonly used on networks like Taboola and Outbrain, but are now more commonly used in paid social as well. They fit the format that Buzzfeed thrived on – easy to consume, clickbait articles.
I’ve also seen brands run these ads through publisher pages (like Endy in the example above), to give it an added sense of legitimacy.
These ads often look like articles down to the landing page, which has the added benefit of leaving plenty of room for copy. For more examples, Adam Lovallo has a great write-up on testing articles as landing pages.
Adding native creative to your portfolio
Online advertisers need to keep in mind that the default result of their ad is that it won’t even be seen – impressions mean the ad is on the screen, not that the user actually saw it. The main goal of native creative is to bypass people’s reflex to ignore ads outright and get them to actually consider your message.
Browsing top advertisers’ ads will make it obvious, however, that native creative is not the only type of ad that achieves that. In competitive spaces like gaming, you’ll notice many creatives that don’t fit the native mold. One of the most widely used is the “wait what?” category of ads, like Wish making ads with someone pouring marinara sauce on a cable holder or baking a rug in the oven, presumably to force your attention and get you to watch the ad.
While native creative isn’t a requirement, it serves as a framework for finding new ideas for creative. The largest improvements in ad performance often come from testing concepts that are radically different from what you’re currently doing, and using native creative unlocks a whole new category of ideas to try.
At Hopper, the trend in our CPI looks more like a step function than a curve, where you can clearly see when new creative concepts were introduced. Our portfolio is also more diverse than before, making creative fatigue much easier to avoid.
All of those new ads came from asking ourselves the same question: how do we make ad creatives that match the organic content on the platform on which they appear?
Towards fewer marketers, with more impact
A common point among these ads is that they tend to be easy to make: user-generated-looking videos can be filmed and edited with your phone, there are dozens of meme generators out there, and anyone with a Webflow account can make articles.
While professional equipment, skilled editors, and large budgets were required to compete before, anyone with a smartphone can make ads if they have the right ideas.
What follows is a shift in the skills required for high-performing ad creative teams: rather than needing designers to make pixel-perfect ads, anyone with an eye for native creative can create successful campaigns.
This puts some power back in the hands of marketers, who might not have had the technical skills required to make TV-grade ads, but can now make and deploy high-performing ads themselves.
In parallel, user acquisition as a whole is becoming more automated – larger ad networks like Facebook and Google are abstracting away the minutiae of targeting and optimization, making the performance of your ad mostly dependent on the creative and the bid.
With creatives getting easier to make, and managing ads becoming less manual, marketers have an unprecedented level of autonomy. Companies that used to require teams of ad buyers and designers can now deploy multimillion dollar budgets with a single full-stack marketer.
The corollary is that the expectations for marketers are higher – more autonomy implies a broader set of skills needed to be competitive. And as making great creative increasingly becomes the most important lever for ad performance, it’ll increasingly become an important skill for marketers to develop as well.
Native creative can be a powerful tool then, both to drive ad performance, and to do so autonomously.
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